Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Youth Activity Ends In Tragedy

Having been involved with youth groups and having been an adult leader on many youth outdoor excursions, I am especially torn about the death of 17-year-old Sophie Barton of Holladay, Utah. (See KSL story.) Barton died on Monday after collapsing while hiking with an LDS Church young women’s group under controlled and well supervised conditions. Barton’s mother was one of the adults hiking with the group.

Barton’s tragic death is no doubt having a stark impact on her family members and friends. The adult leaders that were in charge of the hike must feel terrible. I wish the best for all of these and pray that they will find solace amid their grief.

In the hundreds of youth outdoor adventures I have attended, I have dealt with a variety of medical and first aid issues. Most have been the garden variety injuries that can be expected when engaging in such activities: cuts, abrasions, burns, blisters, hypothermia, sprains, etc. There’s been the occasional illness, such as flu, histamine response, or intestinal distress. More serious injuries, such as broken bones, have been rare. Ditto with serious illnesses, although, these have occurred too. I’ve seen a very few campers end up riding in ambulances and Life Flight helicopters over the years.

I have friends that have dealt with deaths on youth outings. One friend had a seemingly healthy boy die after swimming in a lake at an organized Scout camp. The boy had passed a doctor’s medical exam. A medical doctor that was a few yards away when the boy collapsed on the beach immediately administered treatment, but the boy died anyway. An autopsy revealed a previously undetected rare heart anomaly. It was only by circumstance that the boy died at camp. He might have passed away while sitting at home watching TV.

Another friend had one of his young campers die after being struck by lightning while sleeping in a tent. They figure that lightning struck a nearby tree and traveled through a root that was under the tent. The tree was unaffected. The other boy in the tent was unaffected and was unaware that his companion had been shocked until later in the night.

There is risk involved in any kind of activity. Organizations that sponsor youth groups go to much greater lengths to mitigate unnecessary risks associated with youth activities than at any time in history. We know more about these risks than ever. Medical precautions, training, equipment, and accessibility to qualified professional help have never been better. And yet participants in activities can still be injured, get sick, and even die.

We don’t know for sure why Barton died. KSL reports, “The state medical examiner hopes to have an answer to that within 48 hours.” The Standard Examiner reports that a Sherriff’s deputy “suspected that heat played a role in the death of the girl….” That’s curious, since it wasn’t particularly hot at the time and in the location where Barton collapsed. Perhaps the deputy was referring to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Both heat exhaustion and heat stroke begin primarily with dehydration — inadequate fluid intake to replenish the fluids being lost from the body. Naturally, physical exertion and heat — factors inherent in summertime outdoor activities — increase fluid loss. Illness and some medications can contribute to dehydration as well. Simply replacing fluids can remedy mild dehydration, but severe dehydration requires immediate medical treatment.

The layperson may not be able to tell the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke. But both conditions require medical attention. Body temperature rises under either condition, but it is generally higher with heat stroke. Body temperature may reach or top 105° with heat stroke because the body’s cooling system has shut down.

Adequate hydration begins well before an activity begins with making sure that all participants start out well hydrated. Activity leaders should carefully consider the condition of those that have (or have recently had) diarrhea, young women that are having periods, and those taking medications such as antihistamines.

Proper planning should ensure that each participant has adequate fluid for the duration of the activity and during the hours afterward. I want to take some of my sons hiking to a nearby mountain peak this summer. I know that there are no water sources past a half mile into the hike, so even my backpacking water filter won’t help. We will have to carry a lot of water. That will add weight to our packs, but it is essential to enjoying a safe hike.

Several years ago, we took a large group of youth to St. George, Utah for several days of activities. We enjoyed hiking slot canyons, games in a city park at night, waterskiing, swimming, and even a service project in 104° heat shoveling silt out of a tennis court that had been damaged by flooding that spring. Throughout the days of the activity, we supplied copious amounts of bottled water. Each adult was assigned to watch several youth during those days to make sure no one got close to dehydration. We had a great time and nobody suffered from inadequate fluids.

Right now nobody knows for sure whether dehydration played a role in Sophie Barton’s untimely death. We don’t even know if her death was preventable. When the medical examiner reveals the cause, perhaps it will serve as a learning experience for those of us that lead, participate in, and help with outdoor activities. Such activities are an important part of life. But everyone involved should enjoy them as safely as is reasonable.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cousin Reunion

My Mom came from a fairly large family. My grandparents were working class folks. Like many other families of that era, they migrated from the Midwest to the West over a number of years. They started out as farmers, fell on hard times, and kept moving west to find jobs to supplement their meager farming subsistence. The births of their children spanned about two decades.

The structure of Mom’s family ensured that I would have lots of cousins. In fact, there are nearly four dozen of us. Our births span four decades. I think that I have met most of my cousins at least once during my lifetime. But Mom and her siblings spread themselves around the West. And their kids have spread themselves all over the country. So I can’t be certain that I’ve met each and every cousin; although, I’ve heard Mom talk about all of them.

There are only a few of my Mom’s generation left alive. One of my cousins passed away at a young age, but the rest of us are still alive. One of my older cousins noted that the oldest of us is suffering from a terminal illness. Another has what may be a terminal illness. He thought that maybe it was time to gather our generation to reminisce and get to know each other.

After more than a year of planning, we held our first ever family cousin’s reunion this past weekend. Only the children and grandchildren of my grandparents were invited to attend, along with their spouses. It was felt that if later generations were invited, we’d miss out on opportunities to spend quality time with our fellow cousins. I know that my children were grateful for this arrangement, since spending a weekend hanging out with extended family members they hardly know isn’t their idea of fun.

Some gathered for events on Friday evening. We had an all-day picnic with lovely weather conditions on Saturday. About two-thirds of the gang attended. We ate, socialized, took pictures, and enjoyed each others’ company.

On Saturday evening, most of that crew gathered for a formal banquet at a nice setting. One representative from the family of each of my grandparents’ children spent a few minutes telling what is unique about their family clan. Some stayed for Sunday morning worship events.

While most of those that attended our reunion came from the broader Intermountain West region, we had cousins from both coasts and many points in between. It was interesting to see the diversity among the group that attended, but the bonds that tie us together were readily apparent as well. It was a rather momentous event.

There was some talk about doing something like this again in the future, but who knows whether that will ever come together? Some of my oldest cousins are great grandparents themselves. Most are grandparents. We’re all busy with our own clans.

Several of my cousins did a lot of work to make the reunion a success. One cousin put together a handout that gives contact information for all of us and shows where each of us falls in the succession of births. Another cousin gathered biographical sketches of each cousin and compiled them into a book.

Yet another cousin made name badges that were very useful. Many years ago, my Mom and her siblings had a rare family portrait taken. My cousin extracted the images from that photo and imposed them on the badges. I and my siblings (and our spouses) got a badge with Mom’s name and picture on it, emblazoned with a number showing her order in the birth timeline. Alongside my name was my number in the birth timeline of all members of my generation. These badges were immensely helpful, especially when encountering a cousin I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. Some of us have changed quite a bit over time.

I felt that meal management was handled well. Everyone was on their own for most meals. The picnic was “bring your own food.” The only meal that was jointly supplied was the Saturday evening dinner. One cousin gathered payment for this event several weeks in advance. Since it was a nice meal at an elegant venue, it was not cheap. A few that attended other events opted out of that dinner.

The meal actually cost a couple of dollars less than the charge. The extra amount helped defray other expenses, such as handouts and badges. There were no other frills, so the cost of putting on the event was limited. Several cousins did a lot of volunteer work organizing, gathering money and info, and putting together books, badges and handouts.

All in all, I’d have to say that our cousin reunion was a great success. An event like this is a worthy activity for any expanding (and aging) family clan to consider.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Blame It on the Kids (or the Lack Thereof)

A few studies that made news several years ago noted that many baby boomers expected to retire later in life than their parents and grandparents. But it was also noted that retiring boomers would be better off during their golden years than their parents were. One study found that after a half century of declining retirement age, the trend had reversed.

While researchers have been puzzling about the causes of the increasing retirement age, the explanation may actually be quite simple: Baby boomers tended to have fewer children than their parents did.

A century ago, 30.1 babies were born per 1,000 people in the U.S. That rate dropped to 18.7 during the Great Depression. (Birth rates generally trend lower during economic difficulties.) But after World War II, the rate surged, staying in the mid 20s during the 1950s, and slowly declining to below 20 in 1965 at the end of the boom. (See Infoplease site.)

Although boomers have generally been better off throughout their lives than their parents were, they opted for fewer children. And their children have continued that trend. Concern was sounded when the U.S. birth rate dropped below 14 per 1,000 for the first time in 2002. (See article.) While there was an unprecedented surge in the rate in 2007, it dropped off as the recession took hold in 2008. (See NY Times article.)

The advent of widely available birth control permitted baby boomers more flexibility in determining family size than any previous generation had experienced. Increasing affluence and increasing wages for women helped fuel an increase in the divorce rate along with a decrease in the marriage rate and an increase in the average marriage age. The resulting increase in shorter-term child bearing relationships also contributed to the declining birth rate.

Affluence has been another key factor. As boomers’ parents became more prosperous, they tended to spend more on their children. Boomers took this trend to new heights with their own children. Spending on children has become such a status symbol that an entire child-focused marketing industry has grown. Parents use so many resources per child that it limits the number of children a family can afford.

Overall life expectancy has steadily increased during the past half century, so that the population of people beyond normal child bearing years is higher than ever, and climbing. The increasing median age means that even with increases in the raw number of children being born, the rate of births per thousand is still declining.

The point is that, despite ups and downs, the overall birth rate trend has been significantly downward since the the baby boom. This has a generationally delayed affect on retirement age.

In effect, the parents and grandparents of baby boomers were able to retire at younger ages because there was a huge supply of younger workers surging into the labor market. To some extent, these older workers were pushed out of the market to make way for the burgeoning young generation they spawned.

Another phenomenon of the baby boom generation was the trend toward increased preparation time to enter the job market. Increasing affluence played a role in this, but so did demographics. With more workers entering the market, boomers needed more ways to distinguish themselves to compete for jobs. This trend has continued into subsequent generations so that workers are entering the job market at later ages than their parents did.

The upshot is that as baby boomers eye retirement, there are fewer new job market entrants. This creates less pressure for older workers to retire, as well as fewer workers to fund Social Security pensions that many retirees are depending on to help fund living expenses.

Health conditions play a role in all of this as well. Better lifelong affluence means that boomers have had better health care and nutrition than any previous generation. Since they are healthier (or can be kept healthier) than their parents were at the same age, they are more capable of continuing to work than their parents were. Being healthier means that boomers need to plan for longer retirement times as well. That means more savings. And that means more work.

Increased affluence and expanded options are causing baby boomers to work to older ages than the previous two generations did. Subsequent generations can expect to work to even later points in life as they produce fewer children to replace them in the job market and as workers become productive in the market at older ages than their parents did. Hopefully they’ll be healthy enough to work long enough to enjoy some kind of retirement.

Friday, June 18, 2010

What I Have Learned from Decades of Weight Control

This is the fifth and final post in a series on weight control. In previous posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), I have discussed my various approaches to maintaining a healthy weight throughout most of my life. In this post I will sum up what I have learned about weight control.

After fighting the battle of the bulge for decades, I have learned that different things work for different people, and that different approaches may be required at various stages of life. If you want to reduce to a healthy weight, the first thing you’ve got to do is to find a program that actually works for you. What works for someone else may not work for you. Or you may find that you simply can’t stand it. Each individual requires a custom approach. Discovering what works for you may require some experimentation.

I have also learned that pretty much every successful weight loss program involves denying yourself foods and habits that you very much enjoy and/or to which you are addicted. There’s just no getting around this fact. Mark Twain famously quipped, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not.” So, find a set of restrictions you can live with without cheating much and give it a whirl.

To do this, you need to understand your own personality to a certain degree. Some people only have success when a social element is involved. They find weigh-ins, group meetings, and even working out with others at a public gym to be useful. They need the positive peer pressure to keep them on track.  Me? I’m a lone wolf. I like to manage my diet and exercise privately. But knowing that helps me find approaches that work for me.

It is also important to be willing to try new and different things when the program you are using stops producing acceptable results. Some people seem to find methods that permanently work for them. That hasn’t been my experience. Every few years I end up having to rework my diet. Besides, variety also has benefits.

One of the main secrets to weight control is to dive into whatever program you choose with full commitment. Programs with limited timeframes can be appealing because many people can succeed at maintaining self discipline for a specified number of weeks. The key is to commit and then to do it completely.

Success often breeds more success. When you start on a program and get good results, it provides a pattern for how to continue to succeed. But, as stated above, if your program stops working for you, don’t be afraid to try something different.

Perhaps the greatest key to weight control is controlling your mental picture of yourself. If your mental self image is of an overweight person, your weight loss will be difficult and/or temporary. Permanent weight loss requires an ingrained image of a slender you. There are ways to develop such an image. Some experts claim that only external influences can cause this, but I believe my own experience proves this theory wrong. Get the right image in your head and the appropriate behavior will naturally follow.

Some people never have a problem with excess weight. I didn’t get that kind of body at birth. I imagine that I will be fighting the battle of the bulge for the rest of my natural life. So far, I have figured that it is a battle worth fighting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Low Carb Weight Control

This is my fourth post in a series on my nearly lifelong struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. In past posts (part 1, part 2, part 3), I have described my teenage, young adult, and early middle age weight control efforts. Each approach produced acceptable results at first. But each time, I eventually started to gain weight again.

As my early middle age years went by, I became relatively comfortable with my own mixture of the BFL and BFFM programs. But I was also getting older. I noticed that it was getting harder to maintain my same weight and waist size. What concerned me more was a new pattern I was seeing. I’d maintain well for months. And then I’d suddenly experience a jump in weight and waist size.

Without any significant change in my routine, I’d suddenly put on two pounds and increase my girth by half an inch. Sometimes I could take measures that would somewhat reverse the gain. Other times, nothing I did seemed to help. I would be at a new plateau. This happened several times. Again, I wasn’t sure if it was simply due to advancing age or something else.

A few months ago, a brother introduced me to the 6-Week Cure for the Middle-Aged Middle. I was very wary of low carbohydrate diets. Besides having heard a number of horror stories, I figured that eating piles of fat and protein seemed unbalanced. But I figured that trying the diet for six weeks couldn’t kill me. So I gave it a shot.

The book explains why the equation of simply eating less and exercising more works on paper, but not so much in real life. This section struck me squarely, because it described my precise experience.  More exercise and a stricter diet no longer seemed to help.

Middle-age fat is harder to reduce, the book claims, because it consists of visceral fat that entwines itself around your abdominal organs. This stuff increases blood pressure and causes any number of physical problems. Carbohydrates, it is asserted, can lend to inflammation that helps hold this visceral fat in place. It’s not the saturated fat that’s the problem. It’s the mixture of carbs and saturated fats that causes harm.

The first two weeks of the plan is designed to cleanse your liver. This reduces the body’s ability to hold onto visceral fat. They have you downing three protein shakes each day. You also get one solid low-carb meal. Surprisingly, this wasn’t as difficult as I had expected. Oh, you also have to give up most medications (especially ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and other NSAIDs), all alcohol, and all caffeine. Since I don’t use these products anyway, this was not a problem for me.

During these first two weeks, I dropped about seven pounds and reduced my waist girth by 1½”. They have a method for measuring visceral fat. Almost all of the fat I lost was visceral fat. I felt pretty good about that.

Weeks 3-4 are known as “meat weeks.” You get as much protein and fat as you need to satisfy yourself. But you get minimal levels of carbs. And you get no dairy at all. After so many liquid meals, solid meals were great. I got to eat and enjoy many foods that I had long avoided. During these weeks I lost another couple of pounds. My waist shrunk by another inch.

If you are not yet satisfied with your results at this point of the plan, the authors suggest that you alternate between a “shake” week and a “meat” week until you get to where you want to be. I did this for two weeks. I lost a little bit more weight and girth.

Finally, the last two weeks of the diet are designed to be “maintenance.” That is, they are supposed to be examples of how to eat for the rest of your life. They are a lot like meat weeks, but you can use dairy products. You also get more carbs, but they’re still very restricted.

By the end of three maintenance weeks, I had lost a total of 13 lbs and almost three inches around my waist. I feel as well as I felt under my previous diet plan. I am still doing my same strength training/cardio interval workouts. I have lost a couple of pounds of lean body mass, but I have also lost 11 lbs of fat.

I am as lean as I was nearly a decade ago. Clothes fit well that have been tight (or unwearable) for two to three years. Despite my previous unease with low carbohydrate diets, I am quite pleased with my current results. I was pushing the limits of normal BMI when I started the 6-Week Cure program. (Yes, BMI is a marginal tool for measuring healthy weight, but it is unfortunately widely used nowadays.) Now I am comfortably within normal BMI. By my calculation, I am about 13% body fat.

As has been my pattern for years, I suspect that I will follow this dietary plan until it doesn’t seem to work well for me anymore. Then I will look for something else. My goal in maintaining a healthy weight is to enhance overall health. I’m much less concerned about vanity.

Next time: What I have learned about weight control

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Adult Weight Control

This is the third post in a series about my experiences with weight control. In the first post, I discussed my initial weight control efforts as a teenager. In my last post, I explained how I gained 40 lbs after getting married, and then lost 60 lbs by following a strict high carbohydrate diet.

During the next few years, I slowly gained back about 10 lbs. Then I was introduced to the Zone diet, which centers on a balanced ratio of lean protein, low glycemic complex carbohydrates, and ‘good’ fats. A 30-40-30 ratio of these nutrients was to be consumed at each meal and snack to maintain optimal blood sugar levels. While continuing my same workout program, I soon dropped the 10 lbs I had gained.

This plan worked OK, but learning to prepare meals under the plan was a nightmare. The Zone folks put out a cookbook, but it was all gourmet stuff. I’m no gourmet chef, so it didn’t work for me. I had to learn nutrient amounts for all kinds of foods. I needed a calculator, a computer, and spreadsheets to prepare a meal. Where I had once enjoyed cooking, I came to detest it. But overall, the results were positive.

A few more years slipped by, and then my brother introduced me to the Body for Life program. While BFL also included a 30-40-30 diet, it seemed less rigid than in the Zone diet.

Another change for me was the exercise program, which was structured around alternating resistance (strength) and cardio workouts. All workouts were designed as a series of intervals of increasing intensity. I quickly added muscle and reduced my waist size. I found the variety offered in the workouts to be much more satisfactory than daily aerobic training. (Your own results may vary.)

BFL seemed to work great at first. But after a couple of years, I started to notice my waist size creeping up again. I wasn’t sure if this was the result of my dietary/fitness program or my advancing middle agedness. Frustrated that even strict adherence to the plan wasn’t achieving the kind of results I had previously seen, I started casting about for other options. I chanced upon the Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle program.

As I had with other programs, I dove into the BFFM program. It wasn’t a huge change from the BFL program, but it did offer more details as to why to avoid certain foods while focusing on others. I achieved marginal results with the program, likely because it really wasn’t much different than what I was already doing. But it seemed to help me hold the line for a while.

Next time: Going low-carb

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Weight Control As a Young Adult

Last time I wrote about my first efforts at weight control as a teenager. I experienced some success being careful about my diet while spending a summer planting pineapples in Hawaii.

Back to my regular routine, I quickly regained some of the weight I’d lost in Hawaii. But only some of it. Over the next couple of years, I worked at a fast food restaurant and at a grocery store. I spent my summers working on Boy Scout camp staff, which imposed a fair amount of physical activity. I wasn’t very careful about my diet during this time.

While serving as a missionary in Norway, I again began putting on weight. While Norway is commonly perceived as somewhat Spartan, they’ve got some delicious dishes and treats. Finally, one of my companions convinced me to be careful about my food intake and to take up jogging. That helped me maintain my weight.

Back home in the U.S., I found that jogging at 4,500’ above sea level is a lot harder than jogging at sea level. I slacked off on working out and I didn’t watch my diet much. I led a busy life that included school and work. Eventually I got started on a regular aerobic routine. I still didn’t watch my diet. I knew I could stand to lose 15 lbs. But my physical activity was helping me maintain my weight.

Marriage and home ownership changed all of that. I no longer found time to work out. My wife’s cooking was wonderful. During the first year of marriage I packed on 40 lbs! It really freaked me out, because I kept on gaining. The trajectory didn’t seem to be leveling off. I kept buying bigger clothes.

One day I saw an infomercial for a program called The Neuropsychology of Weight Control. I had never bought anything from an infomercial. But this program offered a 60-day money back guarantee. And I was getting desperate.

Once I received the program, I went at it full tilt. In fact, I can now see in hindsight that I became downright fanatical about it. My overboard dietary evangelism couldn’t help but annoy friends and family members.

The program included three elements: diet, exercise, and mental imaging. The diet was high in complex carbohydrates, somewhat low in protein, and very low in fat. Refined carbohydrates and saturated fats were to be strictly avoided. It was thought to be best if the minimal fats consumed came from polyunsaturated sources. This kind of diet was all the rage at the time and is still officially promoted by most government sources.

The exercise program was straightforward. Just do one hour of aerobic fitness walking each day. The program included a number of mental imaging exercises that were designed to employ as many senses as possible in perceiving oneself to be fit and slender.

By obsessively following this program, I saw very good results within 60 days. So I didn’t bother to try to get my money back. On the contrary, I tried to get others to purchase and use the program. Over the space of a year I dropped 60 lbs. I leveled off after having dropped 10 inches in pant waist size. My waistline was smaller than it had been when I was 16.

Having experienced such dramatic results, I stuck to this plan for many years. I eventually transitioned to using a Nordic Track cross country ski exerciser on many days to reduce impact and to get out of the elements.

Next time: Finding ways to maintain my weight

A Lifetime of Weight Control

I was a chubby kid. Or at least, I was made to think that I was such. When I look back at my childhood pictures, I don’t appear particularly overweight. Especially compared to many of the kids today.

But kids can be harsh to each other. They tend to ruthlessly exploit perceived differences. I would be lying if I claimed that I am presently unaffected by the cruel treatment to which I was subjected as a kid. My offense was being thought of as having a non-ideal body type.

I first undertook a serious effort to battle the bulge at age 16. And I’ve been at it ever since, more or less. All in all, I’d have to say that I’ve been relatively successful. But it has been necessary to take different approaches at different times in my life.

A picture survives of me at age 16 after my first day working as a pineapple planter on a plantation in Hawaii. (That sounds a lot more glamorous that it was in real life.) In the photo, I have removed my shirt and am covered with red dirt. I am flabby, but not plump. My muffin top shows over my belt line.

My supervisor in Hawaii convinced me to give up candy, desserts, and treats of any kind throughout the summer. I ate only the cafeteria meals, but gave away my dessert at each meal. (You’d be surprised how many friends this gesture earned at mealtimes.) I spent my days doing manual agricultural labor in the hot sun.

My family almost didn’t recognize me when I got off the airplane upon arriving home. My neatly cropped brown hair had turned into a shaggy blond mane. I was much trimmer. My pants were kept in place only by virtue of my belt cinched to its tightest setting.

Next time: Weight control as a young adult

Monday, June 07, 2010

Tales from a One-Time Order of the Arrow Leader

When I was 13, I was elected by my Boy Scout troop to become a member of the Order of the Arrow, a fraternal service organization that is part of the BSA. It is often called Scouting’s national honor society.

Having friends that were very active in the OA, I also became quite active. In time, I was elected to various youth leadership positions: chapter vice chief, chapter chief, lodge chief, and section chief. I remained active in my young adult years, serving as an assistant chapter advisor, committee advisor, and chapter advisor (twice).

For many years, I was deeply involved in the OA. I often spent several nights each week and many weekends involved in OA related activities. When I became a scoutmaster, I had to reduce my involvement in the OA. Then, as a father with young children and a career, I went to school at night to improve my skills. I had no time for the OA and many other cherished pursuits during those years.

A short time after finishing graduate school, I was called into a fairly demanding church leadership position. This kept my focus in other areas. During that time, my two oldest sons joined the OA. The second found little interest in it, but the first was heavily involved for many years and was awarded the Vigil Honor.

I have always cherished my experiences with the OA, but in recent years I have still found little time for personal involvement. I have supported my oldest son in his activities, but my duties as a member of the district staff and service in my local unit have kept me as busy in scouting as my circumstances permit.

This past weekend my third son was inducted as a member of the OA. I spent the weekend with him working at a scout camp in Idaho, preparing the camp for the summer. I worked with a detail that felled large dead trees. Some were hauled and used as new trail markers. Some were cut and split into firewood. My son spent much of the time splitting wood. He was actually rather proud of the blisters on his hands at the end of the day.

While there were a few old timers around that knew me, the vast majority of the 130 people at the event had no clue who I was. Having relative anonymity while also having a deep understanding of what was going on provided for an interesting experience.

While the adults in the lodge work, serve, and enjoy fellowship with one another, I watched how most of them assiduously deferred to the youth leaders. I watched the youth leaders make some mistakes. It would have been so easy to step in and correct some of these problems. There were some background sessions where adults led the youth leaders through some lessons learned, but the youth very much appeared to be in charge. Despite foibles, the whole event went off satisfactorily.

I was also reminded of some reasons I don’t mind missing events like this. These kinds of activities used to be like my life blood. I was always in the middle of everything. I was one of the important people. Now I prefer to let others take the lead. Anonymous service suits me just fine.

Every time I attend an OA activity, I am chided by various people for my low level of involvement in the organization. Part of me wants to be more involved, but there is only so much of me to go around. I have other priorities. It’s not like I’m idle. While I realize that some of these people are merely trying to express concern, the constant pressure to return to my previous levels of involvement grates after a while. Who needs that?

I have several BSA uniforms. All of them have what I consider to be the bare minimum of insignia. Whenever I attend an OA event, other adult leaders scold me for not having this or that award that I could be wearing. I am frequently admonished to pursue awards that I already have. I just don’t care to display the award insignia on my uniform.

I see these adults in BSA uniforms that look like five-star generals in military dress. I am so not one of those people. There was a day when I had to make myself feel important by following that line. I am not that person any longer. Perhaps it’s because I see my former self — or a different version of what I could be (but glad I’m not) — that causes me to find these folks repellant.

And then there are the collectors. Some of them are or have been good friends. I’ve been involved in scouting for a long time. I have patches that are considered to be highly valuable on some uniforms. I have patches that are worth thousands of dollars. And I don’t care. The only value a patch holds for me is the underlying memory and sentiment. Frankly, some of my friends that collect BSA memorabilia come across as vultures.

So when I get taken to task for my relatively unadorned uniform, or get pestered to give up some old patch or pin, or get ragged on about how I haven’t been around much, it makes me want to do less rather than more with the OA. I do plenty in other realms of scouting. I know that I can’t do what I used to do with the OA. And moreover, I don’t really want to.

My youth and young adult years in the OA were grand times. I carry many fond memories of those precious years. Perhaps my reluctance to become more involved at present is because I don’t want to spoil those memories. I am not that person anymore. Perhaps I worry that I might revive some of the less savory elements of that person once again.

I hope that the youth involved in the Order of the Arrow gain some of the same kind of fulfillment and leadership opportunities that I had in the organization during my youth. I am grateful for the adults that work to help provide those opportunities. For the present, my focus is elsewhere.

Friday, June 04, 2010

The CDC Says Utahns are Healthy and Skinny, but Have Lousy Mental Health

StateMaster is an interesting and useful site. It lets you see a broad variety of data as it relates to the U.S. and to individual states. You can see where your state ranks in the U.S. for many different measurements.

But like all statistics, StateMaster’s figures have to be taken with a grain of salt. My statistics professor was fond of saying that unless you knew the methods used to gather, filter, and derive the data behind a statistic, the number was essentially meaningless. He warned that without this essential background knowledge we tend to lend unwarranted credibility to statistics cited in by media organizations, companies, academicians, governments, and others.

I happened to click on this StateMaster report showing Utah’s health status ranking. How is it that Utah ranks as #7 in the nation on the health index? StateMaster doesn’t say. And the links it provides to its main source, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s site are all broken. Fortunately you can get to the right place rather easily on your own.

It is unsurprising that Utah has among the nation’s lowest rates for smoking, alcohol consumption, alcohol related fatalities, illicit drug use, and sexually transmitted diseases. And that it has the nation’s highest birth rate. A little more surprising to me is the obesity rate of 18% (making Utah 43 of 51) and 83.1% for physical exercise (2 of 52). Are Utahns really that slender and exercise oriented?

I became more suspicious when the report said that Utah’s prevalence of poor mental health was 41.4%; the worst in the nation. While this may fit a stereotype fostered in certain circles, it doesn’t seem to pass the smell test. Are over 40% of Utahns actually mentally unhealthy?

I started digging into the sources of the health data, and found that most of it came from the Centers for Disease Control Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. The surveillance system is nothing more than an annual telephone survey.

Many of the figures cited on the StateMaster site come from the 2007 survey. I’m not sure why some figures come from different years. The CDC applies various weighting factors to the results. A few of those factors are explained here, but it is not at all clear how Utah’s or any other state’s statistics were actually derived. The CDC provides this document that delves into data quality, but it doesn’t really treat my question.

Telephone surveys are notoriously faulty. They do provide some value for tracking opinion trends, but they are terribly unreliable at pinning down hard facts. The main problem is that respondents have no incentive to treat questions seriously or to answer accurately. The result for the respondent isn’t much different either way. If something serious, such as financial reward, future status, or a personal reputation were riding on the answers, you can bet that you’d see significantly different answers.

Then you have to ask whether the population of people willing to answer an extensive CDC telephone survey closely approximates the general population of a state. It is reasonable to assume that respondents are more likely to be people with telephone land lines and are less likely to have caller-ID. They apparently have enough time on their hands to answer the extensive survey. Are most people in the state like that?

Next you have to question the usefulness of the information you get from these people. When the CDC survey taker asks how much the person weighs without shoes on (question #12.11), how useful is the information received? It is wholly unverifiable. It might mean that Utahns are lighter than their counterparts in most states. Or it could mean that Utahns are more likely to lie about their weight than people in other states. We don’t know. It would be silly to treat these answers as if they had serious scientific value.

The quality of the survey questions is a major factor. The physical exercise statistic comes from a single unverifiable question (#4.1):

“During the past month, other than your regular job, did you participate in any physical activities or exercises such as running, calisthenics, golf, gardening, or walking for exercise?”
Possible answers are Yes, No, Don’t know / Not sure, and Refused. How would you answer the question? Even if you answered yes, do you get anywhere near enough physical exercise? Respondents’ answers to this question do not provide any serious indication of a population’s level of physical activity.

Getting back to the mental health issue. Section 16 of the questionnaire includes 10 questions about mental health. Several are related to stress and/or depression. Some are about mental health perceptions. The first and third questions try to pinpoint now nervous and fidgety you have felt in the last 30 days. Despite the answer classifications, these questions are very subjective. In fact, all of the mental health questions are highly subjective.

Although StateMaster says that 41.4% of Utah survey respondents (as weighted) reported “poor mental health,” the Kaiser Foundation site, which is supposed to be the data source, pins the number at 38.1%. Even at this lower number, it can only be assumed that the definition of poor mental health is so broad as to include almost any temporary negative emotional perception; a position that would please those in the mental health activism industry.

As with the questions about weight, the value of the mental health questions relative to other geographic areas is dubious. The answers are completely unverifiable. One person’s feeling “restless” on “most” days may be analogous to another person’s sense of restlessness on “some” or few days. Or not. We simply don’t know. As with questions about weight, the answers provided by respondents have little scientific value.

The CDC survey can be a useful tool for tracking trends in a population’s opinions about some health related issues. But there is too much ambiguity in most of the data gathered to provide any real value with respect to geographical ranking.

The StateMaster site pegs Utah at #7 on the “Health Index.” This index is simply a bunch of factors that a group of elites with various unapparent motivations decided was important. Given that the data plugged into the index was poorly controlled and often ambiguous, we should assume nothing more than entertainment value from this ranking and from the rankings of the categories that make up the index.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Meaning of Memorial Day

We visited my Father-in-Law’s grave on Saturday afternoon. The weather was relatively pleasant. The cemetery was filled with colorful flowers. There were a number of people standing in groups around graves. Some seemed to be thoughtful. A few appeared to be enjoying one anothers’ company.

Yesterday we visited my Father’s grave along with a number of family members. The weather was very nice. We placed flowers and chatted. Some stood, while others sat on the lawn. Many other families were doing the same.

Dad’s grave is less than a mile from my home. I frequently stop by. But other family members that don’t live as close get fewer opportunities to visit. My Dad-in-Law’s grave is across the county, so we don’t visit as often.

I quite enjoyed remembering and memorializing my Dad and my Dad-in-Law. Both were magnificent human beings.

Large swaths of the cemetery where my Father-in-Law is buried have flat, ground level grave markers that can easily be mowed over. This gives the appearance of relatively unobstructed rolling green lawns. The feeling seems pleasant to me.

My Dad is buried in a municipal cemetery that was founded by early settlers. The place is filled with a broad variety of monuments and markers of various, shapes, sizes, and colors. The job of the caretaking staff is much more involved at this cemetery, given that there are few markers that can simply be mowed over. Each marker requires custom trimming. But the place looked fantastic. The staff had done good work.

I have many fond memories of this municipal cemetery. I used to walk through it on the way to and from school. When my kids were younger, I walked them up and down the cemetery’s roads in a stroller. They loved it. I enjoyed the sparse traffic and the rarity of dogs. I know where the most unique monuments are, and I was at least somewhat acquainted with quite a number of grave occupants.

There are several competing versions of the details surrounding the founding of Memorial Day. But most sources seem to agree that it was instituted to memorialize soldiers killed during the Civil War.

Over the past couple of months, I have been very slowly watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. And I do mean slowly. Last night I took a rare opportunity to watch an entire episode that covers roughly 1863; the year that the war turned in the Union’s favor after it seemed like the Union could do little right for over two years.

Burns does a good job of mixing moments of valiancy and triumph with the incredible horrors of deprivation, depravation, violence and carnage that were part of that war. As the episode concluded with a reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, I was left in a somber mood.

The extreme destruction of life and property seemed so senseless on one hand. But the obliteration of the American institution of human slavery carries an incalculable value, even if one assumes that slavery would have dissipated organically. From my comfortable seat in the 21st Century, it certainly seems as if all of this could have been avoided had any one of a handful of individuals chosen differently.

Given the ongoing controversy about the war — a series of disagreements that will far exceed the lifetime of my future great-grandchildren — I realized that I wasn’t going to resolve the matter in my mind at the moment. But I did comprehend that, regardless of viewpoint, the Civil War was a significant historical event that helped define what it means to be an American. It helped characterize what the United States of America is and what it means.

Thankfully, each of us still has the freedom to arrive at that understanding on our own, though our results may differ.